August 02, 2017

new york underwater

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of criticism lately (and not just because last week’s newsletter incurred the wrath of a number of people wearing VR headsets in their Twitter avatars, which wasn’t what I intended.) 

Criticism is the effort to find out what an artist intended with their work and then assess if they achieved that goal. It takes time to sort of what was intended by a piece. It means getting familiar with an artist’s past work, their contemporaries, their influences, and assembling a general picture of why something was exhibited, published, or produced. Good criticism is rare and unloved. It doesn’t bring in pageviews. It is the same word one might use for tearing another person to shreds, but as analysis, fair-minded criticism is incredibly generous — it requires active listening.

I write fiction, nonfiction, scripts, commentary, investigation; and by far, I find criticism the most challenging (that is, criticism of a film or exhibition, etc. Design criticism isn't as daunting because the purpose tends to be legible.) Some of the most rewarding art isn’t easy to see. It means squinting a little to discover a governing metaphor or a subtle reference that makes all the difference. Criticism is difficult, time consuming, pays the least, and even if you do it well, people assume you’re just a hater for a living. (By the way, I don’t consider this newsletter criticism. Generally I’m writing about my personal reactions to art — my raw likes — rather than offering a deep read. I think of this as an open notebook with my snap judgements and opinions that are constantly evolving.)  

Good criticism is rare while shallow opinions are plentiful. Like the dad-with-the-remote types who make a big deal about how a popular movie actually "sucks" but they don't know what say, a match cut is or what is blocking and their responses only measures whether they were sufficiently entertained. Then there are those pedants in fandom nitpicking things like perceived scientific inaccuracies in literature (it's often hilarious when rationalist-types talk about culture, because they end up making extremely irrational cases for their taste over the intentions of writers and filmmakers.) Being entertained is fine, and sometimes that is the intention, but feeling deeply moved by a work is something else. A critic knows the difference. 

Since we have the internet, criticism can take other forms besides writing— I love the film criticism that’s happening in video essays on Youtube and Vimeo. And — I wrote a little about this earlier — there are new demands on criticism. Now there’s a greater urgency to understand how work is situated with regard to politics and identity, in addition to the formal questions.

Angelica Jade Bastien, a critic gifted in both levels of analysis, provides a great example in her recent review of Detroit. She breaks down the film into several parts to identify exactly where it misses and considers the danger of this misfire. She’s addressing the filmmaker’s body of work and themes, the story, the performances, the pacing, how it is shot, the lightening, and what this work means in the world right now. It’s also a remarkably personal piece, but her essayistic touches only reinforce focus on the film itself. Many artists, filmmakers, writers — myself included — would always prefer a deeply critical read of their work like Bastien’s review, over shallow approval from someone who clearly didn’t get it. 

But often what frustrates artists and writers about criticism is seeing their intentions distorted or inexpertly surmised. That’s badly written criticism. It doesn’t mean all criticism is bad. As an example, here’s a highbrow hatchet job by Heidi Julavits, ironically a writer who crusaded for critical standards over a decade ago. Her review of two books by Joanna Walsh is territorial and supercilious. A line accusing Walsh of “sentences ... like a series of rocks expertly skipped across a body of water that maintains its surface tension, refusing to allow objects to sink in," and many others sound like criticism that Julavits herself often receives (that sentence could describe that very sentence!) I haven't read Walsh's books, but this review tells me that Julavits hasn't really either. So what’s her agenda? Because this is my newsletter, where I offer snap judgements rather than proper criticism, I'll say that review reads to me like Julavits grappling with her conception of her own legacy and taking it out on someone without her institutional clout. 

Fran Lebovitz, in Scorsese’s documentary (thanks to Barry Hoggard who told me about this) has a point about the ripple effect of the AIDS crisis, that while people talk about “what artists were lost… they never talked about this audience that was lost.” The example she uses is how the audience set standards for the New York City Ballet. They were “connoisseurs” who could tell when Suzanne Farrell missed the mark — even the tiniest technical errors. The “very discerning audience” died with the artists. So there was no longer that relationship between a discerning audience and performers delivering excellence night after night. The virtuosity of the performances diminished, the audience was less engaged, the magic was no longer there in the theater. 

Art isn’t sports, there is no gold medal, and the size of an audience doesn’t always reflect excellence, but there are standards that are commonly understood. If the artists working in VR don’t envy that kind of reciprocity between audience and performers like Lebovitz described in ballet — that energy — I don’t know why they bother. No, I do. Because tech people love to call themselves “artists,” when what they actually want is no accountability. 


Now back to the things I like: 

Sam Shepard read a series of his pieces —mostly monologues — at the 2010 Chicago Humanities Festival (Find it in the archives here) and it's really wonderful. I don't know his work very well besides Paris Texas, but Patti Smith's remembrance made me want to correct that.

And New York 2140 is a stunning novel. What’s interesting is Kim Stanley Robinson's taking the familiar sense of nostalgia for the good old days of New York, but repopulating Manhattan with neighborhoods and subcultures and grit a few decades after a catastrophic disaster, rather than setting the story in the past. So a lot of the atmosphere feels tonally like a story set in the 70s, although it is set in the future. It's a book of wit and clarity. I had long put off reading Robinson because I was worried the stories might be too information-rich, too much work, but this book is structured so the intricacy of the story is matched with engrossing scenes. It's 600 pages because there's lots of breathing room. It's a good beach read (the water after all.) In addition to the infrastructure, city life, and logistics, it has elements of cultural history to it, partly because every chapter starts with a few epigraphs — some fake, some poetic, some right on (David Wojnarowicz!) — I believed it.

It's funny at times, a nice departure from the usual humorlessness of sci-fi. Although some of the characters fall flat (a character who might have been the most fascinating, who seemed to be written as a tribute to Octavia Butler, wasn’t sketched out very well.) And it ends with closing lines that should rank among the best summations of New York — up there with E. B. White’s “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky” — lines that truly capture the city’s resilience. 


Some news: this Saturday afternoon I’m on a panel at the Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea Manning exhibition at Fridman Gallery. Then I rush to JFK to catch my flight. I’m staying in Las Vegas for the rest of the month for a residency. Any recommended things to do or see? (Although, what I should be asking for is advice how to sit in a chair for longer than an hour at a time.)

Thanks for reading.